Deanna’s father came home once from the war. The memory was faded now, thin and worn like her favorite old silk pullover that she didn’t trust the replicator to refurbish.
She remembered that they were expecting him. Her mother helped her make a calendar to hang near her bed, counting the days and hours until he would arrive. They sat at the long, stately table together in the quiet house. Lwaxana showed her how to fold the paper in the traditional way, so it would divide naturally into the spiral of days they had left to wait, how to crease it with their expectations and their hopes.
As the day grew closer, though, her mother’s intense expectancy faded from the view of the wandering eye of her memory. All she knew now was that Lwaxana had been elsewhere when Deanna’s father arrived home. Elsewhere in the house, elsewhere in spirit, not present.
She couldn’t remember any of the words he said as hello. Just these things: the metallic burn in her nose of the dust of some other world that clung to him when he pulled her into his arms. The nagging pull of worry for his family, the frayed feeling of fatigue, his strength and warmth that were in her mind in a new way since he left. The bitter, complex taste of the sweet he put on her tongue and told her to savor. “It’s from Earth,” he said in her ear. “A little taste of home.”
She closed her eyes and tried to summon that far-away world out of the treat. Tried to taste the place where he had grown up in a society that was peaceful, in a deeper way than a taut, nervous surface tension keeping everything in its place, where no one listened to your thoughts. Tried to push down the thought, You promised to take me. You weren’t supposed to go without me.
The war wasn’t exactly endless. The Galaxy class ships were designed and built during a lull in the conflict, when some parties in the Federation believed there might be an opportunity to pivot back toward its original mission. Exploration. Peaceful contact with new civilizations.
Deanna was trained in that mode, too, shoulder to shoulder in a cadet class with young men and women born into the war like she was, whose cynicism of the current peace was always in the air. It was her first experience of Earth at the academy, the first time the escape of her childhood imagination was fleshed out with people and places and feelings.
Her father was gone, but somehow all of this had survived.
By the time she was posted to one of those Galaxy class ships, the war had reignited, as so many believed was inevitable. The stately vessels were repurposed, their spacious quarters divided to make rooms upon rooms. Even then, the officers were doubled up like academy cadets.
“You should see the enlisted quarters, they’re like sardines,” her roommate offered. She shoved aside her own belongings on the closet floor with the toe of her boot, to make room.
It was even tighter quarters than the Academy, no room for the desk where she spent so many hours over data padd surveys of the psychologies of Federation species. Just two beds, and the dressing area where she and Tasha tried to share the mirror in the morning when they were on the same shift, and would duck away when they were working opposite schedules and found the other sleeping.
There was no place to eat, but it wasn’t encouraged to take meals in private quarters. Only the common replicators were allotted any power on most runs. With the crew limited to mostly T-K-L’s, it was policy to encourage the crew to eat together, to keep spirits high.
Deanna had given her input on that policy the week she came aboard. One of the few times she had met with the captain face-to-face, she had made an effort to breathe slowly and evenly as the everyday chaos unfolded on the bridge around her, while she waited for the ready room doors to slide open. The captain was a thoughtful man, not quick to judge or act. In the crush of people on the overcrowded ship, his mind was distinct when he was near, cool but not cold, calm but not quiet. Perhaps not quite suited to what circumstances had made of his role, but that was true for so many of them.
Due to the nature of their missions, she was cut out of the day-to-day advisory position that she had prepared for at the Academy. She took in what she could from each of their meetings, knowing that the opportunity to spend more time with him, to gain his trust and confidence, was limited. She walked the crowded halls back to her quarters after such a meeting, preoccupied and failing to take even a basic sense of what lay within.
There was a scramble of bodies as the door opened, laughter, all coursing over a wave of excitement and pleasure that took Deanna by shock. She stood standing in the doorway for a silly amount of time while the other lieutenant tried to find some place to hide, but in their small space, there was nowhere.
Tasha approached Deanna in the mess later, an unopened ration bag in her hand. “Do we need to talk?”
Deanna stirred a cup of the syrupy brew that Guinan passed off as hot chocolate, thoughtfully. “Maybe we need a signal.”
“But you’re not upset?” Tasha was straightforward, but she didn’t use her bluntness as a weapon. She simply had no time in her day to do anything but cut to the heart of the matter.
Deanna appreciated that about her. “Of course not. Maybe... a bit jealous.” She’d been on the ship for two months now, and hadn’t yet figured out how to navigate the dating scene. Its quick connections and fleeting pleasures attracted and repelled her in turn. At the moment she found herself on the upside of the pendulum swing.
“Mmm.” Tasha grinned in understanding. “I’ve found that overthinking these things gets in the way of some really great sex.” The corner of her mouth twitched. The two women broke into laughter as she ripped into her meal packet.
They went to ten forward together on the first night of the next transport run to the front lines, sat themselves at the bar near several raucous clusters of soldiers, and that was almost all there was to it.
It was simple, but it could feel complicated, with her ex-lover on board. She had kept company with Will Riker on Betazed during the waning days of the peace. She had hoped at the time that he would stay with her, but they both must have known what was coming, on some level, and had chosen for a time to look away.
At the Academy, the press of feral human minds had been difficult to cope with. Among the Betazoids, though, Will’s strength and curiosity and openness had felt like a refuge as Lwaxana retreated further and further into herself, her passion for diplomacy thwarted as the situation slowly deteriorated and the last of the Federation diplomats were sent back to their home planets.
Still, there were summer evenings and concerts to enjoy, sandy beaches to walk upon. Will pointed out a dark border in the twilight one evening as the winds picked up off the sea, a deeper blue rising above the horizon opposite the setting sun. “Is there a name for that here?”
“What is it?”
“On Earth, we call it the belt of Venus. It’s the shadow that the Earth itself casts into space.” For someone considering a career out there, she had spent little time with her mind on the stars and other celestial bodies. She looked up at him, in question. “Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the simple mechanics of the spheres.”
They saw each other sometimes on the Enterprise. His mind was the same, but always with a strong sense that he’d rather she wasn’t there. She knew it was rooted in a concern for her safety, in caring, but it was a fresh rejection every time she saw him, and every time she had to report to him.
“It’s ridiculous,” Deanna shouted, so Tasha could hear her over the supersonic shower.
“What’s ridiculous?” Tasha called back. She had been training with her team in a holodeck simulation for the past two days. “Holodeck dirt may not be real, but holodeck sweat is,” she’d said as she headed for the shower.
The ship was at warp, a rush of stars trailing past the window in an incoherent streak of light. Deanna took her boots off and sat on the only available place, her bed.
“Deanna?” Tasha came out of the shower wrapped in a robe. The ends of her short hair were damp. One of the few luxuries left to them was the steam finish of the shower, and neither of them usually chose to let the body dryer wick away all of the moisture. “What happened?”
“An exercise in frustration.” Deanna weighed what she could share. Patient confidentiality demanded that she say little about a day that left her feeling torn in two… not about the ensign breaking down in her office, the lieutenant sent to fetch him back to his duty station who ended up airing her own deeply felt problems with their work situation. Their commanding officer was a lieutenant commander, Deanna’s equal in rank, whose presence she could only describe as toxic. Gamely she raised the issues to him, and ended the day finding herself called into Will’s office.
There were so many people who need more than they were getting. “Sometimes I don’t know why Starfleet trained me, gave me all of these tools to see what was wrong with people and relationships, when all I’m authorized to do most of the time is reinforce the chain of command and remind them to follow orders. No one has the time or patience for anything else.”
“Maybe when you’re in the thick of it, that’s the best thing. Maybe now isn’t the time to be working through all the pieces.” Tasha sat down on the end of her bed. Her mind and purpose were like an arrow, clear and cleanly directed. Unremarkable at first, the more Deanna let it come into relief from the sea of conscious thought around her, the more she felt it. “We all know the war can’t go on forever like this.”
“Is that what you would say if one of your team came to me?”
“In the end, yes, I would. All we can do is move forward. That’s all I ask them to do. That’s all I can ask of myself.”
Deanna took those words and lived with them for while, taking them for a walk down the crowded corridors, into the meetings where she was asked to listen and observe. One of the strangest experiences of the Enterprise was how distant the war could sometimes seem. Sometimes Tasha was gone for days on training exercises and Deanna would turn back to Betazoid poetry in the evenings in their quarters alone, with the herbal perfume of tea and the ever changing constellations to accompany those austere thoughts.
Sometimes the ship rocked in battle, sometimes she was called in to counsel the truly traumatized. More often, there were sudden, unexplained changes in course, rumors of Klingon prisoners of war in the cargo hold on a deck that had been declared off limits, and always uncertain whispers of where they were headed with next, and whether the front would hold.
“They said I should come talk to you,” said the dark haired woman, “about my crew.”
“Do you have an hour?” Tasha’s voice came over the comm system into her quiet office. “Come train with me.”
Deanna didn’t point out that it was something they’d hardly ever done together, and that it was a strange time with the Enterprise-C crew aboard. Few had been interested in meeting with her, following their captain’s lead, but she had a handful of appointments later in the day.
She found the appropriate gear in the anteroom and suited up. Tasha called out the program she’d selected, and the walls shimmered and changed into a dusty gym on Earth. For an hour, Deanna concentrated on her form as she kicked the bag from different angles.
The fan spun overhead and they sat on the edge of the mat, breathless, while the kickbag still swayed back and forth. “It feels good to be so tired.” Tasha lay down on the mat and rolled her shoulders back into the ground.
“So tired you can’t think of anything else.” Deanna agreed as she lay down next to her. Not the crewful of survivors from the past, thrust forward into uncertainty.
Tasha held up her hands, screening the fan’s movement with a web of fingers that cast a zoetrope of shadows into their eyes. “Would you want to go forward, or backward?”
“There’s certainty in looking backward,” Deanna decided. “We all find that attractive, in a way. But I don’t know if I find it very hopeful.”
“There’s always hope, that things could be different,” but Tasha sounded unconvinced. She rolled to her side, propping her head on her hand. “I wouldn’t want to live the same life twice.”
“There are moments… When I said goodbye to my father. I can’t remember that moment. I don’t suppose it would have changed much of anything, but I would have liked to have known that it was goodbye.”
Her twenty-third century survivors fell away over the next few days, as their ship reassembled itself. Their stories weren’t so different from other battle veterans she had worked with who had lived through the loss of so many shipmates. Her role was to do what she could to help them get back on their feet, and quickly.
They nodded at her from across the crowded lounge in the evening, their old-fashioned red uniforms setting them apart from the Enterprise D crew. Tasha stood at the bar with one, a man Deanna knew she was beginning to feel close to, closer than the flings and recreational romances. A current of connection, of understanding and trust, all of those rare qualities that wartime made it difficult to nourish, ran between them.
He was tall, and his eyes were light with laughter. For a moment when he turned toward her, the medallion on the folded placket on his shoulder, she saw her father’s figure.
“Uncanny, isn’t it?” said Guinan, trading her empty glass for a fresh one, an effervescent chocolate soda this time. Deanna agreed, silently unsettled.
The alerts came more frequently.
She hadn’t seen Tasha in 36 hours, since she was serving shift after shift and supporting both crews.
She passed Will in a corridor, striding with intent next to another old-fashioned redshirt. She felt her presence catch in his psyche, like in the old days, like a finger trailing through the ripples at the pond’s edge. He nodded his chin at her as he passed.
She went to sickbay and held the hands of two dying patients, like a priest.
She found that it was possible as an empath to feel a little alone even in the middle of six thousand people.
Tasha stopped by her office with no bags in hand and said, "This is the goodbye." Deanna knew that there was no time to understand it; she enfolded her friend in her arms and hoped that she could feel some of the gratitude Deanna felt, and let her go.
She closed her eyes at night in bed by herself, willed herself to relax and let down her the last of her defenses, and let the churn of anxiety that was out there to be felt wash over her.
The ship rattled and shook. She had no station to man, so she stayed with her dreams.
Her father said, "If you went to war to look for me, my darling, I'm not here."